Unity and Diversity

An intriguing thing about 'The Bible' is that we customarily refer to it in the singular. This title has a long and hallowed pedigree, matched by another singular term: 'The Word of God'. But, when we open it up this 'Bible' contains many different books with many words.

The Greeks emphasized the variety by using the plural 'Ta Biblia' = The Books. In a way, each description is right; in a way each is inadequate. The Bible resists neat categorisation and there may be a lesson in this. We need to respect both its unity and diversity of . There is always more to it than meets any eye.

The Jews strike a rather nice balance by calling their Hebrew Bible/our OT 'Tanak', a singular term that also contains in abbreviated form references to its diverse parts: Torah (the Pentateuch), Nebiim (the Prophets), and Ketubim (the Writings). Altogether there are 24 books within these three groups. Preeminence is given to the 5 books of the Torah, a term that means something like Teaching or Instruction. It has a much broader meaning than our term law.

Torah contains laws but also stories, genealogies, reports, itineraries, songs and homilies. As parents know so well, it is often better to instruct children by telling a story or singing a song than laying down the law. Jewish tradition divides Nebiim (the Prophets) into two sub-groups: the former prophets and the latter or writing prophets. The former are the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Within the latter prophets, Jewish tradition distinguishes between the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and the 12 minor prophets which are treated as one book.

The third major division, Ketubim (the Writings) includes the remaining 11 books of the 'canon' (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah). One might be excused for thinking that this last part of the OT is designed to accommodate 'leftovers', treasured works that nevertheless could not be described as Torah or Prophecy. The rather broad term 'Ketubim' is quite apt.

Different Editions of the Bible

In the 3rd century BCE, Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt undertook to translate their Hebrew texts into Greek to meet the needs of an expanding Greek speaking community. The Greek translation that came down to us differs in significant ways from the Hebrew Bible, an indication that there may have been more than one Hebrew version in circulation at that time.

Two differences in particular stand out. One is that the Greek version has 4 main parts instead of 3. The translators 'interpreted' or understood the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as history rather than prophecy--quite a change! Another is that the Greek list of sacred books is longer than the Hebrew one. A quick glance at a Catholic edition of the Bible, which follows the Greek, then a Protestant one, which follows the Hebrew, will show the differences.

What might we make of such differences? It is heartening to realise that our forebears seem to have been well aware of differences of 'interpretation' and were prepared to live with them. Different views were argued but not, it seems, imposed.

As prospective interpreters of the OT ourselves, it will be good to keep their company. It is also surely significant that the Hebrew tradition does not call any of its books 'history' in the Greek sense, a sense that has had considerable impact on our own understanding of 'history writing' today.

One can see that the books of Samuel and Kings in particular feature prophets in prominent roles. Yet, along with Joshua and Judges, these books also tell the story of Israel's life in the land, the collapse of the monarchy and the ignominy of exile. Again, we come up against the limitations of our words. Each term offers something but not everything. It may be wise to keep both 'prophecy' and 'history' in mind when we come to reflect on the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings.

Issues pertaining to the Canon

Another factor, and an intriguing one, is that the Hebrew and Greek traditions agree on where the Bible begins (Genesis 1) but their differing lists show that they disagree on where it should end.

In fact, the disagreement among Christian denominations about what constitutes the 'canon' of biblical books must be rather bewildering to an outsider. On the more positive side, such disagreement or, better still, such uncertainty may say something about the life of faith. It enables a believer to see some things but not all. In terms of knowledge, believers live with a certain uncertainty. To put it another way; we never quite achieve closure.

Added to this uncertainty is the historical factor. Most existing manuscripts of the Bible come from our common era and we cannot be sure that their lists of books are the same as those before the common era. To borrow a phrase from St. Paul, 'We see now as in a mirror, darkly'. Paul's mirror was probably polished metal, and pretty cheap metal. He was not a man of means. While on Paul, it is worth mentioning that he used the Greek Bible when referring to the OT and his practice was generally followed by other NT authors and by the early Church.

In the next installment we will begin to explore the mighty edifice of the Torah. In doing so, we will endeavour to follow the lead of those early interpreters who left some valuable clues about how to read their sacred texts-the inspired fruit of their faith.


Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney